Hwang Dong-hyuk is laughing at me from his office in Seoul. I’ve just asked the creator of Squid Game, Netflix’s smash hit show, if its astonishing success has made him rich. In the dystopian survival drama, a mysterious organisation challenges 456 players from all walks of life – each deeply in debt – to play a series of children’s games. Win and they go home with 4.6bn won (£28m). Lose and they get a bullet in the head.
Perhaps Hwang is now as rich as the contestant who wins the top prize? “I’m not that rich,” he says. “But I do have enough. I have enough to put food on the table. And it’s not like Netflix is paying me a bonus. Netflix paid me according to the original contract.” That seems unfair. After all, the 50-year-old South Korean film-maker has made hundreds of millions for his paymasters. Squid Game earlier this month overtook Bridgerton as the most successful Netflix show ever. According to leaked documents, the nine-episode run cost £15.5m to produce, which works out at £1.75m per instalment. Its return on that has been extraordinary. The series – which Netflix estimates has been watched by 142m households and boosted its subscriber figures by 4.4m – is thought to be worth £650m to the streaming service.
Perhaps Hwang should have negotiated a performance-related clause, particularly as creating, writing and directing it caused him so much stress that he lost six teeth in the process. “It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I kept having new ideas and revising the episodes as we were filming so the amount of work multiplied.”
The idea for Squid Game came out of Hwang’s own family situation in 2009, after the global financial crisis that hit his homeland hard. “I was very financially straitened because my mother retired from the company she was working for. There was a film I was working on but we failed to get finance. So I couldn’t work for about a year. We had to take out loans – my mother, myself and my grandmother.”
Hwang Dong-hyuk: ‘I tried to watch Bridgerton but gave up in the middle of episode one.’ Photograph: Ji Sang Chung/Netflix
Hwang sought relief in Seoul’s comic book cafes. “I read Battle Royal and Liar Game and other survival game comics. I related to the people in them, who were desperate for money and …….